The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday issued a landmark ruling on one of the many incidents of killings and disappearances of Kurdish civilians by Turkish government forces in the early 1990s at the height of the conflict with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). During that period the army forcibly evacuated and burned thousands of villages, in some cases killing villagers through shelling or aerial bombardment. 

 The European Court held Turkey responsible for the deaths of 33 people, including women and children, in an airforce bombing raid on the villages of Kuşkonar and Koçağılı on March 26, 1994.

In 1995 Human Rights Watch documented the bombing, which was the subject of an official cover-up, in a report on Turkey’s violations of the laws of war in the southeast in the early 1990s. Human Rights Watch talked to some witnesses of that attack again for a report last year on the importance of securing justice for victims of state-perpetrated killings and disappearances.

In its ruling on Tuesday, the European Court ordered Turkey to pay €2.3 million in damages because of its violations of the right to life and inadequate investigation into the deaths, and took an important and unusual further step, ruling that Turkey should now conduct a full domestic investigation into the case, “with a view to identifying and punishing those responsible.”

This ruling sends a message that there is an obligation under international law for Turkey to ensure justice for the victims and their families, even 20 years later.

But there are wider implications, and for more recent cases. One is the  December 28, 2011 Turkish bombing that  killed 34 Kurdish civilian men and boys at the Iraqi Kurdistan border as they attempted to return to their villages in the Uludere district of Şırnak, carrying smuggled goods.

Two years on, the case file has been passed from one prosecutor to another, and some families of victims have been fined for illegally crossing the border that night.

The Turkish government should read Tuesday’s ruling as a reminder that while embarking on important investigations into past abuses, it should show similar commitment to properly investigate allegations of human rights violations on its own watch. The European Court has made clear that this isn’t just a choice, but an obligation.